Magazine article American Banker

Small Banks Weigh Benefits, Risks of Issuing Credit Cards

Magazine article American Banker

Small Banks Weigh Benefits, Risks of Issuing Credit Cards

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Davis, Jackie Stewart

Some community bankers believe that issuing credit cards could go a long ways toward solving their fee income problems.

Banks that issue credit cards are finding another way to connect with customers while earning revenue from interchange fees, even if cardholders religiously pay off monthly balances, some bankers say.

"Every community bank should look at issuing credit cards," says Rusty Cloutier, president and chief executive of MidSouth Bancorp (MSL) in Lafayette, La. "It is the best money we've ever made."

Smaller banks should view card issuance as a "defensive play," says Brian Riley, senior research director at CEB TowerGroup. "Large national banks are still struggling with increasing their loan portfolios and community banks... may see those banks seeking to have relationships with their customers."

To be sure, card issuance can be a risky business line, though bankers can limit the risk somewhat by sticking to existing customers with proven track records, industry experts say.

Credit card portfolios seem to be holding up well right now from a credit perspective. The delinquency rate, or the ratio of borrowers at least 90 days late on general purpose credit cards, fell 13 basis in the fourth quarter compared to a year earlier, to 1.48%, according to Transunion.

The cards business usually performs well when delinquencies are around 3%, Riley says.

So right now is a good time for banks to consider getting into the business, says Andrea Perry, vice president in marketing and advisory services at Kessler.

"I do think it is a strong time for credit cards," Perry says. "From everything we have looked at in the near future, the credit card market will do well. I don't see anything to tell me otherwise."

Still, the business has its challenges. While consumer confidence has improved, people seem reluctant to run up high balances on their cards. Revolving consumer credit rose just 1% last year, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

Consumer advocates may view this development positively, Riley says. But for bankers, such stagnation could signal that the same consumers continue to carry debt they are struggling to pay off.

Risks exist, but Cloutier finds it hard to believe that banks that are willing to offer home equity lines, or make big commercial loans, are squeamish about credit cards. …

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